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Sunday, 13 November 2016

The 17th Battalion (Nova Scotia)

On August 6, 1914—two days after Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany—Canadian military authorities authorized the formation of the 17th Battalion, its ranks to be recruited from Nova Scotian militia units. Two days later, the Adjutant-General issued instructions for each Nova Scotia militia regiment to select “not more than 125 men with officers” for overseas service with the First Canadian Contingent. On September 20, a group of 135 Officers, Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) and “other ranks” (OR) from the 78th Pictou Highlanders boarded a train at New Glasgow and commenced the journey to Camp Valcartier, near Quebec City.

A full quota from the 76th Colchester Rifles joined them at Truro, along with a Company each from the 75th Lunenburg and 69th Annapolis Regiments, and small detachments from the 63rd Halifax Rifles and 66th Princess Louise Fusiliers (Halifax). A full complement from the 93rd Cumberland Regiment came aboard at Amherst, bringing the total number of recruits to more than 500 Officers, NCOs and OR.

The fact that three units—63rd Halifax Rifles, 66th Princess Louise Fusiliers and 94th Victoria Regiment Argyll Highlanders—were already on garrison duty at Halifax and strategic locations around the province significantly reduced the number of soldiers available for overseas service. Nevertheless, the Officers on board the train developed a plan to form a Nova Scotian battalion, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Struan G. Robertson, 78th Pictou Highlanders.

Lt. Col. Struan G. Robertson, OC, 17th Battalion (NS).
After arriving at Valcartier, the Bluenosers remained together, determined to form an exclusively Nova Scotian unit despite their incomplete numbers. Fearing dispersal to other units or the addition of soldiers from other provinces, the rank and file refused to complete their attestation papers until military officials guaranteed that their Nova Scotian Officers would accompany them overseas.

Politics soon intervened when Nova Scotia’s Premier, George Henry Murray, arrived at Valcartier shortly afterward. Murray met with the 17th’s Officers and offered them a choice—proceed to England as a “half battalion” or remain behind, complete the unit’s complement of soldiers, and sail at a later date. The Officers unanimously chose the second option and conveyed their decision to Premier Murray. Unfortunately, by that time, Murray had departed camp. The Premier responded that authorities had decided to send the group as a “half battalion” with the First Canadian Contingent, on the understanding that further recruitment and additional drafts would bring the unit to full strength after its overseas arrival.

Within three days of the Officers’ meeting, Cape Breton, Pictou, Colchester and Cumberland units raised the numbers required to complete the battalion’s ranks. However, authorities declined to provide the necessary transport, as the Contingent’s departure was imminent. As a result, the 17th Battalion sailed from Quebec aboard SS Ruthenia on September 30, 1914 with a total of 773 “all ranks,” approximately 300 under full strength.

Upon arriving at Plymouth, England on October 14, the unit made its way to military camp on Salisbury Plain, where its personnel trained as a unit for the next three months. Shuffled from one Brigade to another, no additional drafts arrived to complete its ranks. Military authorities attempted to “draft” the 17th’s OR to other First Contingent units, but the terms of the Army Act gave them the right to decline, as they had been in uniform for more than three months.

17th Reserve Battalion pipers.
When the soldiers refused to leave the unit, military authorities designated the 17th and three other First Contingent battalions—9th, 11th and 12th—“reserve units” on January 18, 1915. The four battalions formed the Canadian Training Depot and entered quarters at Tidworth Barracks, Salisbury Plain. The 17th’s NCOs and OR were then dispersed to other “First Contingent” battalions, replacing soldiers lost to sickness, desertion, or transfers to Imperial forces since their arrival in England.

Following the arrival of additional reserve battalions in March 1915, military authorities disbanded the training depot and established the Canadian Training Division relocated the training at Shorncliffe. The 17th proceeded to the new location on March 15, and was officially re-designated the 17th Reserve Battalion on April 29, 1915.

A kilted battalion that wore the Mackenzie tartan and possessed a pipe band with in its ranks, the 17th Reserve Battalion remained at Salisbury Plain throughout the war. During its first two years in England, the 17th absorbed several Ontario and Western Canadian battalions and received drafts from several others, while providing reinforcements to several 1st and 2nd Division units at the front.

In January 1917, military officials implemented a major reorganization, as the 17th absorbed the ranks of the 193rd and 219th Battalions—two of the Nova Scotia Highland Brigade’s former units—and was re-designated the “Nova Scotia Regiment.” From that point forward, the 17th received its reinforcements exclusively from the 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment, located in Military District No. 6 (Maritime Provinces).

17th Reserve Battalion pipe band.
During the war’s final two years, virtually all Nova Scotian infantry drafts passed through the 17th Reserve Battalion’s ranks on their way to the front lines. The unit provided reinforcements for the 2nd Canadian Division’s 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles - effective October 16, 1917), the 3rd Canadian Division’s Royal Canadian Regiment (effective October 15, 1917), and the 4th Canadian Division’s 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders - effective January 1, 1917), for the duration of the war.

Following the end of hostilities, the 17th Reserve Battalion relocated to South Ripon on January 23, 1919. The unit was formally disbanded on September 15, 1920, and was perpetuated by the 1st Battalion, Pictou Highlanders, which later became part of the present-day “Nova Scotia Highlanders.”



“17th Reserve Battalion.” Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group. Available online.

Hunt, M. S.. Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War. Nova Scotia Veteran Publishing Co., Ltd., 1920. Available online.